The Climax: Kyoto, Osaka, Onomichi, Oh My!

Completely disregarding my self-given advice of the last post to take care and rest myself between periods of work and gallivanting across the country, I found myself blissfully exhausted the last two weeks of my stay in Japan. This perpetual state of exhaustion, however, completely sucked the creativity right out of my blog writing, so I decided to wait until a period of rest presented itself before attempting to write again. Now, jet-lagged and safely returned to American soil, I am spending my second morning back home recounting as much as I can about my stay in Japan before the unique perspective that living in the country provided me fades into background noise as I re-acclimate to the United States.

So, let’s rewind to Thursday evening, July 11 – the international students’ weekly French Day! Continuing in the spirit of the previous French-Day-turned-America-Day, French Day had yet again temporarily morphed into movie night, this week’s selection being The Last King of Scotland. And, oh my, what a movie that was! If there has ever been a film perfectly depicting the devastation brought about by overconfident Westerners wielding their half-hearted morality in an attempt to find adventure and fulfillment for themselves by “reforming” a culture that they don’t understand in the least, this film is it. Yet again, it was a very appropriate movie and good reminder for us Westerners temporarily living in an Eastern country.

Earlier that Thursday at work, I had been informed by Inagaki-san that Friday and Saturday would be spent cleaning the lab, which meant that I would probably be more in the way than of help. Because the following Monday was a national holiday (Ocean’s Day!), this meant that I would have a four day weekend. After having spent the last four days repeating the same experiment (attempting to react a thioxanthone derivative with oxalyl chloride) four different times under slightly different conditions, I was a little frustrated by my failure to make my reaction proceed and hoping that a change of location would give me some inspiration. So, with that in mind, I made plans to take a day bus on Friday to go visit my friend Myranda who lives in Kyoto and is studying Japanese. We were going to explore both Kyoto and Osaka!

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Friday night after my arrival was a blast. We ate at an Indian curry restaurant (which from what I’ve seen are about as prevalent in Japan as Mexican restaurants are in the States), visited an Egyptian hookah bar, and made our way down to the Kamogawa Riverside. Although I had seen this river before during daylight hours on my last visit to Kyoto, the riverside had been nearly completely empty save for a few people walking their dogs. You can imagine how surprised I was, then, to see the riverside now covered with hundreds of people drinking and chatting as they watched performers and listened to bands.

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I was particularly impressed by one jazz band that featured a saxophone, jazz flute, bass, and other super cool instruments. They were great to listen to as we chatted with locals, international students studying at the same university as Myranda, and some travelers from the United Kingdom.

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The next morning, I donned some of my newly bought Japanese clothes, and Myranda and I headed out to Osaka! Every city I have visited in Japan has had its own unique character, but Osaka was practically bursting at the seams with personality, what with its kansai dialect, backwards escalator etiquette, and the crazy busy takoyaki, or octopus ball, stands. Some of the biggest highlights of the day included Spa World, a six-story theme park centered around bathing,

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the Pokemon store,

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Glico man, who’s been around since the 1920’s,

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some kabuki players in a really cool, touristy part of the city,

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a Lolita shop that sold everything from school girl to maid outfits,

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and the Umeda building, the tallest building in Osaka.

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My favorite part of the day, however, was the festivities that were taking place on the river that flows through Osaka. All day long, boys and men were rowing colorful boats down the river, playing a continuous rhythm on their drums.

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Although I am not quite sure what the meaning behind this festival was, it looked almost as if they were trying to move a river spirit across the water, so we’ll go with that. Another amusing moment occurred as Myranda and I made our way down Osaka’s main shopping street, only to encounter a rather familiar sound.

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It was the same jazz band from the night before in Kyoto!

Although we probably could have stayed in Osaka late into the night, Myranda and I had a train to catch, so after watching evening fall upon the city,

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and taking pictures from above,

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we caught the last train home and fell fast asleep upon stepping foot in Myranda’s room.

The next morning, the two of us made our way to a Japanese Baptist Church that Myranda had been frequenting for the past month. It truly was an experience singing hymns in Japanese that I had heard my entire life sung in English, and I had a lot of fun learning the kanji for words associated with the religion through the hymnbook. You see, most of the hymnbook was written in hiragana, which I can read, with a few, repeating kanji scattered throughout. Since Myranda had verbally taught me the words for “Christ”, “God”, etc. earlier, I was able to match those words with their respective kanji as I heard them. One fact that I found particularly cool is that the kanji for the Christian church, the symbol for teaching matched with the symbol for meeting, is different than the kanji associated with other types of churches. Another thing that amazed me was the Korean man in front of us who was translating the entire sermon into Korean for his family as it was spoken in Japanese; after talking to him afterwards, apparently he can translate equally well into English! Myranda tried her hand at translating into English for me during the sermon, and I must say that I was incredibly impressed, not to mention proud! Because of her, I was really able to get a firm grasp of what was being said.

After a quick Japanese curry lunch, Myranda and I made our way over to one of my favorite stops of the day: Neko (Cat) Cafe! Basically, the whole idea is that you pet cats while sipping tea. Laugh at me if you wish, but I found the experience to be quite relaxing – and occasionally amusing whenever the waitress brought out her laser to play with the cats.

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We didn’t get to play with any kitties, though. Those were twice as expensive.

After our allotted one hour in the cafe, we decided that it was temple time! Our first stop was Kiyomizu-dera, a beautiful temple located on the side of a mountain.

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(Shinto gate on the left; Buddhist gate on the right)

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(And look at that nice view of Kyoto Tower!)

The Shinto part of the temple is dedicated to love (aww!) and has some really interesting traditions that visitors can take part in. For instance, if you can make your way with your eyes closed between the twin pair of rocks found in the walkway,

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true love will be yours! If you miss, though, you are doomed to live a lonely life forever. Pretty content with my love life at that moment, I didn’t feel like risking it and left the rocks alone (ha ha). The Buddhist part of the temple also had some activities to take part in, though, so I made up for my lack of participation on the Shinto side. Kiyomizu actually means “pure water” in Japanese, and it is said that if you drink the water that flows from the side of the mountain, you will be granted one wish! Although most temples have some sort of “do this and you’ll be granted one wish” site, this one looked particularly fun,

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so I gave it a try! However, because I was so focused on trying to maneuver the long-handled cup and do all the hand washing/water drinking in the right order, I managed to both forget to make a wish and leave my watch behind. Looking back, I am now wondering if my bad luck was regressive because on my way down from Kiyomizu-dera to go find some matcha (green tea) ice cream, I kind of half-way tripped on a staircase that promises bad luck if you trip on it. Embarrassing, I know. Luckily, though, we ran into a Studio Ghibli store on our way back, and I got a nice, comforting hug from Totoro.

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We also had the pleasure of stumbling upon a Chigo child ceremony in preparation for Gion Matsuri, a huge festival that began the day after I left Kyoto.

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Because the night bus that was supposed to take me back to Saijo wasn’t scheduled for another four hours, Myranda and I decided to take a look at one more cultural site before we headed back to Kyoto Station:

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Fushini Inari!

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Fushini Inari is supposedly inhabited by kitsune,

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fox gods that love the ladies. It is a HUGE no-no to bring your boyfriend to this temple because the kitsune get rather jealous if they see a pretty girl accompanied by a boy, and if you get caught by one of them, your relationship is basically doomed. However, it is perfectly okay to go with your girlfriends and pray for love because the fox gods have a soft spot for desperate women. To get to the altar, however, you have to climb all the way from here:

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(see the shining, red gate?)

to here:

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(behind that same gate!)

The hike is by no means boring, though, as the way is marked by thousands and thousands of red gates.

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Because companies have started donating gates in recent years, the tunnel truly seems to just go…

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…and go…

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…and occasionally get interrupted by some rather eerie, graveyard-like shrines…

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…and go some more.

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You may actually recognize this location from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, but unlike that movie implies, this temple is NOT in the middle of Kyoto. In fact, it’s pretty far out, probably one of the most inconvenient to reach in all of Kyoto.

You’ll be happy to hear that I made it back to Kyoto Eki (Station) in time for my night bus and safely arrived at Saijo Eki at 5:55 AM on Monday morning. I planned to meet some friends there at 8:00 to head over to Onomichi for a 60 kilometer, all-day bike tour over the surrounding islands, and because it was a holiday, buses didn’t start running until about 7:45, so I spent my morning hanging around the station, surprisingly well-rested!

Onomichi and the surrounding islands were simply amazing. I especially enjoyed the unique bridges crossing to and from the different islands.

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In all honesty, the area is just pretty in general. I don’t think I got a single bad picture.

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We were a little worried about the weather, though, as the skies seemed rather downcast, so we decided to make this guy,

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Teru Teru Mikan-chan. This literally translates to “Shine Shine Napkin” and is a play off of the traditional name for these dolls, teru teru bozu.

After riding for about 25 kilometers, we realized that we needed to return the bikes in less than two hours. Some of the newer bikers (including me) didn’t think we were up to the challenge of riding all the way back over three islands at a faster pace than the first trek, so we separated into two groups: the ferry group

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and the bike group.

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Because we the ferry people had some extra time on our hands, we decided to explore a random temple that we had passed a bit earlier and were stunned as soon as we stepped inside.

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We had stumbled upon a treasure trove! However, with only about 15 minutes to explore and not wanting to pay the 1200 yen ($12) entrance fee, we spent most of our time perusing some incredibly interesting scenes carved out near the front of the temple.

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There were also some ancient, intricately molded statues.

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Because the temple didn’t seem to be a heavily frequented one, there weren’t any plaques explaining what exactly the carvings and statues were, which would have been super interesting to learn about. Truly, though, I don’t have any room to complain: the weekend wasn’t anything short of amazing, basically the climax to my Japanese adventure, and the excitement helped me brace myself for the bitterweet goodbyes to come…

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